I offer three thoughts in the wake of the running political theater involving Donald Trump and John Lewis, last week and the past weekend.
First, that the celebration surrounding a presidential inauguration is far less about the president being inaugurated than it is about the American tradition — which is relatively unique and highly salutary — of transferring political power without bloodshed. Those possessed with some knowledge of history are aware that until the American Revolution came along it was by no means normal for a leader of a nation to voluntarily cede power to another without thousands of corpses littering a battlefield; that, following America’s lead, this has become unremarkable is reason for even more celebration of our tradition rather than less. Peaceful succession of elected leaders is in fact a big deal; every four years we have our opportunity to brag a little about that contribution to the improvement of human society, so the pomp and circumstance of an inauguration isn’t about POTUS; it’s about us.
And that means it’s proper for civic leaders — particularly those who are elected officials at the federal level — to participate in celebrating an inauguration. It’s not especially necessary for the president to be inaugurated to align ideologically with those attending the ceremony; in fact, it says far more about America as a constitutional republic that those of a different political party would be willing to attend. They’re not supporting the president so much as the system which has served us so well as a country.
So when Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), the former civil-rights icon — he became a hero to that movement after he was badly beaten during the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 — declared he would be joining a boycott of Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, it was a disappointing sign that some of our elected officials don’t quite grasp the ideals of the nation’s founding.
Which leads me to the second point, which is that the civil rights movement Lewis is so famous for having been a part of a half-century ago succeeded for a very particular reason. It wasn’t that 1960’s America was so open to racial harmony and was falling all over itself to do right by black people. The America of today is one which, in an exposition of pure, naked goodwill made a thoroughly unqualified and out-of-touch BS artist president mostly because he was black and to this day tells pollsters it likes him despite gross disapproval of his policies and the direction in which he’s led the country for eight years. By comparison the America of Lewis’ heroism was a very unfriendly, intolerant place.
But the civil rights movement, and particularly Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led it, prevailed nonetheless. King was successful in attaining a greater measure of civil rights and affecting wide-ranging social change because his advocacy was based on universally-accepted values. King told the truth as most Americans understood it — he accepted as nearly all Americans did the prospect that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with equal rights, and he championed that concept as central to his movement. King asked merely what Frederick Douglass had asked a century before; that black people be afforded the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. It was a proposition with which few could argue, and when King pointed out the brutality to which blacks were subject in the Jim Crow South he didn’t need to exaggerate or make extravagant claims. He merely told the truth, and large majorities recognized that what King was asking for was just and correct.
There was a time when John Lewis could be recognized as fighting that good fight, and congratulated for his efforts — and his suffering — along the way to positive social change.
But John Lewis is no longer that tough-as-nails young man fighting for truth and the American ideal. He hasn’t been for a very long time. Somewhere in the 30 years he’s spent as the congressman for most of the city of Atlanta the truth has been lost, and now Lewis is no different from the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus — he’s a petty, squabbling partisan opportunist clinging to a false moral superiority most never earned and that he himself has squandered.
The CBC claims to carry the mantle passed to it by the civil-rights movement Lewis fought for, but Martin Luther King would have had very little interest in an organization whose leader would boast of his willingness to “kick somebody’s ass” over the propriety of displaying a painting depicting policemen as pigs with pistols in the Cannon tunnel on Capitol Hill.
And King most certainly would not have appreciated the specter of Jim Crow being misused, as Lewis did last week, to accuse Jeff Sessions of bringing back whites-only drinking fountains should he be confirmed as Attorney General. That rhetoric may be clothed in King’s accomplishments, but it makes a complete mockery of them. What John Lewis’ idiotic hyperbole indicated was that the civil-rights movement his head was split open for in Selma had such flimsy accomplishments and such meager effect on American culture that we are but one bad hire for a presidential Cabinet away from wiping out 50 years of societal evolution. Anyone with that little faith in his own accomplishments should surely be expected to retire in disgrace from public life, no?
But such irresponsible statements are par for the course from Lewis. He justified his boycott of Trump’s inauguration by claiming it was brought about by a Russian conspiracy and that Trump was “not a legitimate president.” This could be considered mild by Lewis’ standards; after all, he claimed that John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008 were “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in a way reminiscent of George Wallace — rhetoric he trotted out again to describe Trump last year.
And just in case you think Lewis ought to get the benefit of the doubt thanks to his exploits a half-century ago, let’s remember that the single most persistent item of racial inequality in America today lies in education. Schools in predominantly black areas are nearly uniformly inferior to those in predominantly white areas, and the result is black children are commonly trapped in failed government schools which rob them of opportunities to learn needed skills for social and economic mobility.
John Lewis, as a member of Congress, voted against both the inception of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the first real effort to promote school choice for predominantly black working-class and poor people, and its reauthorization. Lewis also voted to kill a bill in 1997 to provide states the power to use federal funds for school vouchers if they so chose. He has a 91 percent lifetime score courtesy of the National Education Association; meaning he’s as reliable a vote in favor of a union and against the interests of public school kids, many of whom are black, as there is in Congress. That’s how important the fight for equality is to the modern-day John Lewis.
And after a week of Lewis’ non-stop yammering, Trump finally had his fill and boiled over on Twitter. He roared that Lewis should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” and then said Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
The specific statements in Trump’s tweets weren’t as articulate as they could have been (Lewis’ record isn’t that he’s all talk, it’s that his talk is useless if not counterproductive), but the reaction — that Trump spent the Martin Luther King Day weekend attacking a prominent civil rights leader, which shows how racist Trump is — was far farther from the mark. Lewis, if he’s going to cloak himself in that mantle while spouting partisan falsehoods and calumnies, no longer deserves that designation. At best he’s a civil-rights has-been; at worst an outright fraud.
Either way it is proper for him to bear scrutiny and even ridicule. As a sacred cow he slaughtered himself some time ago.
Let’s remember this amid what promises to be a whole week’s worth of lamentations about the racist new president whose inauguration Lewis and his pals will be boycotting and protesting.